Monday, June 24, 2013

New fishery could boost food security for Alaska

The establishment of a new artisanal commercial fishery in Alaska could improve food security for the state, according to authors of a newly published article in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development.

“Currently, we manage all commercial fisheries as industrial fisheries, keeping the cost of entry high in order to prevent overfishing,” said Philip Loring, a researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “But if we carve out a small portion of these fisheries and regulate them differently, lower the cost of entry for small-scale fishers but require that the catch be marketed locally, we would be taking a huge step toward improving food security across the state.”

Food insecurity in Alaska is a rising challenge. Seafood, which is an important part of the Alaska food system, is not usually featured in local food movements, which more often focus on agricultural products. Instead, scientific research and international policy documents more often talk about wild fisheries as imperiled and overfished. That can put food security and fisheries conservation at odds: Loring notes the recurrent conflicts over Yukon River king salmon management as an example.

Loring and his colleagues, UAF professor Craig Gerlach and recent master’s degree graduate Hannah Harrison (a SNRAS alum), surveyed 1,500 Kenai Peninsula households in 2011. The results showed that access to locally caught seafood, especially salmon, correlates with higher household food security. The effect was strongest among low-income households. While many people assume that access to locally grown or harvested food improves food security, the study is among the first to show such an outcome with actual data.

The study found that 80 percent of surveyed households had a member that fishes locally, whether for personal use and subsistence, sport, as a charter guide or commercially. While this is a high proportion, some local residents are missing out.

“Grocery stores in the Peninsula do not offer fresh local seafood, which seems unreal,” Loring said. “Unless you fish yourself, or know someone who fishes and have something to barter or trade, you are out of luck.”

Barter and trade was the primary method of obtaining local seafood for many low-income households surveyed.

Loring and colleagues argue that increasing individual opportunities to fish is not the best way to improve food security in the Peninsula and in the state. Increasing the availability of commercially caught fish at affordable prices could be a better solution, they said. “Individual access to food resources, whether you are fishing yourself or growing it yourself is important, but it is not the basis of a sustainable and resilient food system. We need to find ways to develop local markets and bring Alaska-caught seafood to Alaska consumers before shipping it off to the global food system.”

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